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I saw quite a cool T shirt yesterday that said ‘SQUAT TILL YOU PUKE’ on the front, a great sentiment and depending on what training affect you want is probably a good idea. Most serious strength athletes, trainers, and sports people will say that without squats you can not reach your full potential, and I agree.

We know for example that the squat (when done correctly) is not only a fierce lower body strength developer, but also has a huge core / lower back involvement, not to mention stressing the upper back and your mental fortitude. In fact it is arguably the king exercise, although I’d edge toward the podium snatch grip dead lift (thank you Charles Poliquin…nasty!)

Further more, the saying goes that ‘if you want big strong arms then squat’. This is to do with the hormonal release that accompanies balls out squats i.e growth hormone (GH) and testosterone (T) which flood the whole body and cause a growth / strength response, so long as you get your workout nutrition right and don’t train for too long. Basically squats are ace! See blog ‘the 5 best exercises  -probabaly’

But! There are times when perhaps the squat isn’t the best lower body exercise in the gym. What happens if our athlete or indeed client can not squat due to a structural imbalance, injury, weakness, tightness and so on?

Well first up, a squat is only a squat if you can get your hamstrings to your calves (full range of movement) or ‘ass to the grass’ as they say. Anything else isn’t a squat; it may be a half squat but certainly not a squat. This is an important point. We are designed to be able to full squat. When in the full squat position our knees are at their most stable and with less sheering forces going though the joint, contrary to popular opinion! The reason that the fitness industry has mistakenly insisted that a full squat is bad for your knees is in my view due to urban myth, poor knowledge of biomechanics, improper teaching and importantly because a lot of people are so structurally imbalanced that in fact a full squat is likely to cause injury.

What happens to the lower back if we have excessively tight hamstring or hip flexors? What happens to the knees if our adductors are tight?
What happens to the angle at the torso if our calves are tight?
What happens if we have poor flexibility at the ankles / feet?
What happens if the lower back itself is tight?
What happens if we are weak in the core / lower back?
What happens if the upper back is weak?
What happens if our shoulders are rounded, impinged, tight etc?
What happens if we have a weak VMO (tear drop medial quad muscle)?
What happens if an injury is causing us grief?
Well I’ll tell you…we will not be able to safely do a full squat and if we can’t safely do a full squat why are we doing it? There are reasons when we might employ partial range squats but that is not a topic for today.

A colleague I spoke to a few days ago was explaining that a number of his athlete (premiership rugby…chiefs, chiefs, chiefs!!!) are unable to full squat (not because of weakness but more because of inflexibly) and therefore they will do squat variations like split squats, lunges, step ups, core squats, front squats etc. He also mentioned that some of his counterparts in the US very often just use machines as the squat is thought to be too dangerous, probably especially in season. We waffled on about function as well but I won’t bore you with that here.

Go into any gym right now and you will see people struggling away under the squat rack with the very best intentions to gain strength, mass, power, athletic enhancement etc, great stuff. However if you look closely, very often the squat is not ‘ass to the grass’ and the technique maybe be poor, normally due to one or more of the reasons listed above. Sports therapist hear this all the time, “I knackered my back squatting”. The truth is that if we were structurally balanced we would never injure ourselves in the gym (1RM testing maybe an acceptable risk of course).

So to recap, squats are the daddy, but if for some reason you are unable to fully squat safely then don’t squat at all, do a variation, split squats being my personal favourite. Work on the problems (tightness / imbalances etc) until you are able to squat. We are designed to be in a full squat position, check out any child and watch them squat (that sounds a bit wrong) or look at tribes people sat in a squat position for hours, no problems there. A half squat only trains half the leg, causes real structural imbalances and has us loaded up with weight in the most unstable position for the knee. Great for the ego, not great full structured optimal results!

Something else to consider, purely from a general leg motor unit recruitment view point – are we able to lift more weight, relatively, when pressing from a leg press machine where the core is kind of taken out of the equation or when doing a squat where the core / lower back are heavily involved?…Just a thought!?

Squat till you puke…but only if safe (I mean the squatting not the puking)

See blog ‘Wieght belts – for dudes or dorks’